Paul Moon: Water spirits wend way to Government's door

The esoteric power of rivers seems to have had near-universal appeal in traditional cultures. Photo / Rotorua Daily Post
The esoteric power of rivers seems to have had near-universal appeal in traditional cultures. Photo / Rotorua Daily Post

As potentially protracted court action looms over the Government's plan for the partial sale of Mighty River Power, history has once again proven tough to dislodge when it comes to the perception of the country's waterways.

Two distinct tributaries of thought about the status of rivers have now converged at the feet of the Government, but resolving property rights to flowing water in New Zealand is still a long way downstream, and may impede the Government's best efforts to proceed with the partial sale of Mighty River Power .

Amid all the splashing around by various interest groups over the issue of the customary Maori ownership of rivers, what has remained partially submerged are the very long histories that both Crown and Maori are the inheritors of when it comes to the perception of rivers. These go to the heart of the impasse.

The Crown's position has a pedigree that flows through British common law right back to its source in ancient Greece.

There, around 500 BC, the philosopher Heraclitus observed that you cannot step into the same river twice because of the fact that the constant flow of rivers means the second step you take will inevitably be into a different body of water.

This view of the transitory character of rivers migrated to the earliest period of English common law, under which ownership of the riverbeds was vested with the Crown, while the water that flowed over them was effectively a public good. The waters were muddied slightly during the medieval period, however, when the right to navigate on a river trumped the right to other uses of these waterways. However, the demands of these two rights seldom collided in this period, and so there the matter lay, seemingly settled.

With the establishment of a colonial government in New Zealand from 1840, this approach to the river water - as something that no one owned - became part of the country's freshly minted common law. Not that anyone seemed to mind. As in medieval England, the demands placed on New Zealand rivers for most of the 19th century were so slight that the impression left was that there was plenty of water for everyone's needs, and probably always would be.

However, there was already in New Zealand another current of thought about the status of rivers that predated the British arrival by several centuries.

For traditional Maori communities, the many life-sustaining properties of rivers, together with their great scale, easily made them candidates for sacred status. Certainly, it is not hard to see why they were viewed as being a divine and living entity, with their undulating currents and fleetingly rippled surfaces giving them an animated appearance. And as these flowing labyrinths disgorged into the sea, they were eternally replenished with water from their sources, thus giving the impression of fluvial immortality.

Yet, from a traditional Maori viewpoint, the river was still the same river, despite the endless flow of water (and so Heraclitus' step was a philosophical step too far). Rivers served more directly as symbols to Maori of everlasting life because of their capacity for eternal rejuvenation. And because fresh water was an essential part of every community's existence, rivers were also life-givers.

The role of rivers as bringers of fertility to Maori communities was one of those areas where science and superstition coalesced. Being used for horticultural fertility, especially in the cultivation of kumara, for example, it was a logical progression for rivers to become symbols of fertility. In the cultural topography of traditional Maori society, the confluence of these hydraulic arteries of material and spiritual sustenance was instinctive.

As one kaumatua explained in the case of the Tarawera River, "The ancestors had appealed to the Gods to put in place the mauri so that the river would be pure in order to sustain the people". It was not so much the rivers themselves that maintained traditional Maori communities, but the esoteric power that coursed through these waters.

In James Frazer's classic masterpiece, The Golden Bough, this view of rivers seems to have had near-universal appeal in traditional cultures. Carried away by currents of myths, Maori society treated rivers with reverence, and allowed these flowing bodies of water to inundate their culture to an extent that few other features of nature did.

While Maori and European perspectives of rivers have a lengthy provenance, to some extent, the views of both groups have been overtaken by technology, and the increasing drive to convert flowing water into a commodity. If a solution to the current differences between Maori and the Crown is to be found, some shared acknowledgment and respect of these ancient histories of perceiving rivers is necessary, along with the willingness by both sides to resist the urge to make absolute pronouncements on the status of flowing water. Rivers have historically been too fluid to accommodate such absolutism.

Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at AUT University, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, University College, London.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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